Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Lightning wreathed Lazuli as she chased the fleeing Sleepless. The kite harpy outsped Malia, her wings shrieking from the air and exertion. Outpaced, Malia summoned her Warbow and fired a parting shot at Lazuli.
In a flash, the harpy darted away and disappeared in the distance.
Malia’s dissatisfied snarl shook the ground. The air warbled as she vented her frustration by scything the routed undead with her gaze. No longer protected by their aerial goddess, the Sleepless quickly succumbed to my gorgon’s wrath, disintegrating and leaving their final resting place toxic and discolored. Malia glared at the spot where Lazuli had disappeared, but stopped when I tapped our bond.
“We need to secure Kirunadh and regroup before we pursue.” The frustration pulsing through our bond was more than just hers. Going after Lazuli was tempting, but also foolish. Though her retreat looked genuine, especially given how poorly she fared against Malia, there was always the chance that it was a feint to draw us away from the village.
Malia dipped towards me, then snarled and arced over the wall, showering arrows upon the Sleepless still inside. Thrax and Hasda went inside as well, cutting down the few undead cloying at the gates. I made to follow, but Kydon waved me over.
The hulking corpse of the strange, reanimated monstrosity lay at his feet. Wisps of smoke curled from its shattered chest, mismatched ribs protruding from the opening like grasping fingers. This particular beast had had three heads, one goat and two cows, although as I drew closer I saw the score of rat heads that clung where its neck should have been. Hooves, both cloven and not, terminated the ends of its woven-legged limbs, and a stubby tail bent at an odd angle from beneath its fallen form. Worse than the smell of decay was the stench of burnt hair and flesh that belched from its death wound.
Kydon glowered at the corpse as he poked it with his pike. “Have you seen anything like this before?”
Shrieks erupted behind us and were abruptly cut off. Malia’s roar filled the air, and the sounds of conflict died out.
I shook off the frissons and nudged the corpse. “Never. Malia’s reports didn’t mention anything like this, either. As far as I know, the Stitcher has stuck to human remains thus far.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” He poked at the rotting, pulsing flesh with his pike. “The Stitcher is advancing, if he’s piecing together amalgams of other creatures.”
“If he’s testing his limits, he can’t have made that many.” I watched as he pulled the chest open, strands of muscle snapping like dry rotted ropes. “I’m surprised he didn’t start with the Sleepless, though.”
“Something in the sorcery, perhaps?” With his head halfway in the thing, his voice bounced around the cavity in a wet, uncomfortable way.
I frowned. “Unlikely. Dead flesh is dead flesh, and the Sleepless are soulless. So there’s no spirit bound to the frame that would protest at something inhuman joined to its frame.”
Brown blood spurted across Kydon’s face as he cracked the ribcage fully open. “He’s directly controlling them, then?”
“That, or he’s bound primitive instructions to them.” I moved around the heads, scanning the necks for signs of glyphs or wardings. “Long-distance orchestration of such a large force would be incredibly taxing, mentally and magically. Preset orders cast into the corpse as they’re raised would allow for greater utility without much exertion, but it makes them more disposable.”
“How much complexity can be bound in the instructions?” Rat heads popped like grapes as Kydon worked to remove the goat head. “So far, they’ve only attacked and retreated.”
“I’ve never tried necromancy myself, but from what I know of it, the directions could be fairly sophisticated.” I stepped back as he dropped the severed head. “But the more detailed the commands, the longer it would take to bind them. Simple instructions are quicker and easier to produce en masse.”
The half troll extracted the neck vertebrae and cleaned them of the decaying flesh. With most of it removed, he turned the bones towards me. “I can’t sense how he enchanted this thing. Do you see anything I missed?”
I shook my head. “If it’s in the muscles, it likely burned away when you felled it.”
“That’s a shame.” Kydon pried open a bovine eye and stared at it as if it held answers. “The Sleepless are the same?”
I paused. When I’d cut through the undead, I hadn’t felt the bodies release any trapped spirits. Hasda and Thrax had dropped empty husks as well.
When I told him as much, Kydon sighed and straightened, flicking blood off his hands. “This is the largest swarm the Stitcher has fielded, yes?”
I nodded. “Of course, he could—and should—be holding his largest force in reserve. We’ve yet to find out how many bodies the Stitcher has left.”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Hasda should try fording the river tomorrow…” He trailed off and stared past my shoulder.
A pair of figures emerged from the eastern treeline. The Sleepless had fled to the north, so it wasn’t Lazuli or any of hers, and none of the villagers had come out following the attack. Considering her strange garb and feathered companion, it wasn’t hard to guess that this stripling of a girl wasn’t one of ours. Her drab green cloak was filthy from dirt and ash, her dark clothes and sun-kissed face smeared likewise. Crouching, she crept from the shadows of the forest with a staff gripped before her.
The black-feathered stork beside her, however, towered proud as it broke the treeline. Smoky soot showered from its sides as it sauntered out, creating a false fog around it. Fully head and shoulders taller than the girl, the bird might easily have matched Hasda in height. Oddest of all was its bill, broad and spade-like closer to its head, but from the tip extended a silvery protrusion, longer than the stork’s neck.
Kydon firmed his grip on his Pike while I summoned my Sword to my side as we made our way towards the advancing pair. When the girl noticed us, she buried herself against the bird’s side, peeking through its wing. Kydon and I covered the distance between us faster than the girl and her bird. Both seemed mortal, and neither exuded an aura as we approached.
When we were a human’s stone throw from each other, Kydon stopped and planted the butt of his Pike in the earth. “State your business.”
The girl straightened but kept her hand buried in the bird’s feathers. “My Cika leads. I follow.”
“Cika? That your friend’s name?” I smiled at her angry scowl.
“All kavak are Cika. This Cika is mine.” She bared her teeth at me, a growl in her gaze. I’d never thought a look could convey sound, but she managed it.
“The ore dowsers?” Kydon gave the stork a thoughtful look. “Seppo’s talked about getting one of these.”
Now the girl really did growl, shoving her staff between us and the bird. As she shifted, the fox tail dangling from her belt slipped out. Still snarling, she flailed and tucked it back in.
Brow arched, I took a step to the side. “That’s a metal sniffer? Explains why it looks like Phaeus got his hands on its beak. Did we know the Elthiians had them?” I watched her face. “You are Elthiian, yes?”
She wrinkled her nose at me.
“We do now.” Kydon gave the girl a thoughtful look.
“You will not take him from me.” She clacked her teeth at us. Behind her, the kavak spread its dark wings, trying to look intimidating and dusting them both with ash.
I held up a hand. “And we have no intention of doing so. You must admit our curiosity as to how you came by such a rare creature, and how you’ve survived so long on your own with undead roaming the land.”
“The ash keeps us safe.” She tightened her grip on her staff.
Kydon and I exchanged a look.
“Malia has said nothing of this,” Kydon began, but I shook my head.
“I don’t think the Sleepless have exhibited any aversion to it, otherwise she would have taken advantage of it.” I turned to the girl. “Do you serve the Weeping Queen?”
She hissed and shrank into the plumage. “She has abandoned us. Vythar will avenge...”
We waited, but she remained silent.
“Vythar is the surviving son?” I asked.
She nodded once. “He is fierce, and protects us from the soulless.”
The tremble in her legs had nothing to do with fear. I gave her a stern look. “When was the last time you ate?”
“I can fend for myself.” Teeth bared, she feigned competence and just ended up shaking more.
Vanishing my Sword, I nodded to Kydon. “Let’s get her inside and get her fed. She can answer better once she’s rested.”
Her face tightened with hollow haughtiness. “I will be no prisoner.”
“No, but you will be malnourished if you keep guessing which roots are edible.” Kydon, Pike likewise gone, ambled over.
She pulled back, pushing the bird away as well. Squawking, the stork perked up, blinking at the village, and then jerked away from her grip in a sprint.
Kydon caught her as she stumbled. In a blink, the kavak had raced across the field to the bridge and darted inside the village. Picking up the unhappy girl, Kydon carried her past me. “I will see her fed while you find the bird.”